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Who Should Pay for the Music Books?
My policy is to give a free notebook to each pupil (to record details of his progress, practice timetable etc.) but all other books (including the beginner’s course book, and exam books) should be paid for by the pupil himself.
The free notebook I supply is a cheap one from a multi-pack; I replace it when it’s filled but ask the pupil to buy a new one it if it gets lost (it’s surprising how many do). However, if he prefers to buy a ‘proper’ practice diary or notebook, there is a variety to choose from at Musicroom.com.
I try to keep the costs to parents low by suggesting second-hand piano course books (sometimes old books are given to me to sell on) and not insisting on them buying scales books for the exams: in any case, scales need to be learned by heart.
In the first year, the only additional book I recommend is a basic Christmas carols book (it’s called – Piano Time Carols – 19 really easy arrangements by Pauline Hall in The Oxford Piano Method series) but the purchase of this is optional.
I give parents the choice of buying books from myself, if I have a supply of them, or recommend the cheapest outlets – either a local music shop or various online sites – particularly Musicroom.com, Amazon UK /Amazon US and eBay.co.uk/eBay.com.
Decide Age Limits for your Pupils
My own choice was a lower age limit of seven and no upper age limit (which means I was more than happy to welcome two beginners in their 70s).
Six-year-olds are not necessarily too young (my own sons started learning at this age but of course, they had the advantage of me around to help them with their practice; also I wasn’t restricted to half-hour lessons and I didn’t feel the same sense of pressure to succeed as I wasn’t taking anyone else’s money). The danger is, if you allow one six-year-old, who you know to be bright and mature, you may feel obliged to extend this acceptance to all six-year-olds … and many children of that age will struggle to concentrate.
Although in some cultures there is a tendency to start music lessons at an even younger age, in my experience, this doesn’t necessarily give a significant advantage and many eight or nine-year-old beginners have that extra bit of maturity which enables them to catch up with those who started a few years earlier.
I have had requests from some parents of four or five-year-olds who are so desperate for their child to get a head start that they say they’re willing to pay for a lesson which is just ‘fun’. I’d like to think all my lessons have some degree of ‘fun’ (my pupils may not agree) but I really don’t see any point in paying for a child to ‘mess about’ on a piano for half an hour when he could do this for free at home.
Should the Parent Sit In?
When teaching young children, you may have requests from parents to sit in on the lesson. Personally, I don’t think it’s a good idea and I make my feelings clear as politely as I can. I feel a teacher needs to develop some kind of relationship with the pupil – he should be attempting to do what his teacher’s suggesting rather than thinking about pleasing his parents.
With a parent present, it’s difficult for a child to be completely honest – about the piece he’s playing or about how much he’s enjoying (or not) his practising and you really need to know the truth in order to gauge your approach.
Some parents say: ‘My child is too shy and timid to stay without me’. I just reply: ‘Well let’s see how it goes – don’t worry, I’m very used to shy children … I was a particularly shy child myself’. (Actually I’ve yet to meet a child who comes anywhere near to matching my own degree of shyness).
So, when a parent comes to the door along with the child, I lead the child into the piano room and indicate a chair in the hall for his mother or father. I provide a table full of magazines to occupy the parent, although the room is near enough for them to listen to what’s going on in the lesson if they choose to do so. To this day, I have never had a pupil who’s seemed uncomfortable about being left alone with me – and certainly never one who’s asked for his parent to come back into the room.
Something to Practise On
Before agreeing to teach anyone, you need to know he has something suitable to practise on. You may think this goes without saying, but parents who have no experience of learning an instrument sometimes ask if their child can attend lessons for a few months ‘to see if he likes it’, with a view to buying something later on. In this case, I would persuade them to purchase or borrow a cheap, basic keyboard to start with, and ideally buy a piano as soon as possible.
Some of my pupils who have been coming to lessons for years still practise on an electronic keyboard at home – this may be due to the high cost of pianos or shortage of space in the home.
When I first started teaching, I would not accept pupils without a piano or – at the very least – a touch-sensitive keyboard with pedal attachment. Since then, I have relaxed this rule a little so as not to exclude potential learners. However, if asked, I would always recommend buying a cheap second-hand piano for kids over a brand new electronic keyboard. I would also say that a traditional piano is preferable to an electric one as the keys go down so easily on an electric one that people practising on this type of instrument find it ‘hard work’ to play on a traditional one. (See Tips for Buying Piano).
Teach at a Level that Suits You
Finally, remember it’s better to teach at the level you feel most comfortable with. As a highly accomplished pianist, you may feel frustrated by beginners’ mistakes so should set a minimum requirement of – say – grade 4.
If, on the other hand, you lack confidence in your own ability at the higher grades (as I did), you may prefer to advertise yourself as ‘specialising’ in beginners and choose to reject anyone of grade 5 or above. Ideally, if you turn anyone away, you should pass on names of other more suitable teachers in the area or suggest ways of finding them.